The second floor squeeze

The Hmong Student Association will be affected by the redesign of Coffman’s second floor.

Rania Abuisnaineh

“One of the main reasons I chose to come to the U of M,” I was told once by a Hispanic student, “is because of the La Raza Cultural Center. It gave me a second home.”

Months passed since I heard these words. I didn’t know the student who uttered them, except for a brief interview I held with her on campus diversity, yet her words never lost their impact.

To a minority student on campus, the second floor space in Coffman Union is more than sacred. A whole blend of cultures brews between its walls — from Somali and Hispanic to Hmong and Native American. And for decades, these cultural groups have nestled themselves comfortably on the second floor in small spaces they each call their own.

But what happens when a handful of these well-established groups lose space in the process of redesigning the second floor?

Such will be the fate of all student groups housed in the Student Organizations Activities Center offices (distinct from the nine hard-walled cultural centers) once the redesign plan is launched. Most notable is the Hmong Minnesota Student Association, a nonprofit cultural group on campus with approximately 75 registered members and 100 to 200 in their unregistered general body.

HMSA began as the humble effort of six Hmong undergraduates 25 years ago; with much perseverance, they’ve expanded the reach of their influence to Hmong student groups in several campuses across the state — Concordia University, the University of St. Thomas and St. Catherine University, just to name a few. Even more impressive is HMSA’s Heritage Day, student-performed play productions, conferences and cultural workshops that attract authority figures in the Hmong community. It’s devastating that a group so successful and established is losing their space.

“Society has a tendency to categorize all Asians as one,” HMSA’s Vice President Monica Lee said. “The University says it’s pushing us to be more diverse, but instead, they’re pushing many individual distinct groups together in a mixed-use space.”

Although I agree, we should bear in mind that the Second Floor Advisory Committee and the Board of Governors put tremendous effort in the redesign process. They sent surveys to individual student groups inquiring what they valued most in their second floor space; by contacting various universities across the nation, they also compared alternative space plans with our own. Albeit sloppy and inconsistent at times, the much-contested redesign process sought a floor plan that would be an improvement to the current one.

“The goal of our committee,” said Alec Bronston, chairman of SFAC, “is to create a lasting design that will strengthen community and will be inclusive of all students’ needs.”

This is a beautiful statement, but I question whether or not the new design reflects this mission best. Under the latest plan, all student groups in the SOAC offices will lose their privacy. The nine large hard-wall cultural centers that are saved will occupy 68 percent of the second floor, and the other 32 percent will become a mixed-use space for the remaining student groups. Despite the availability of meeting rooms and equipment storages, this new plan overlooks an elemental aspect of second floor space use: atmosphere, that ambiance of friendliness and privacy that HMSA and other SOAC groups currently enjoy.

“Our private space now is free of judgment, free of criticism, free of discrimination,” Lee said. “Together, we feel comfortable sharing certain traditions and values that others wouldn’t understand […] except our own.”

If the new design plan will deprive thriving student groups a private space to be themselves, then perhaps the University should consider other means of accommodating growing diversity.